In a 1993 Paris Review interview, Don DeLillo called The Warren Report “the Oxford English Dictionary of the assassination and also the Joycean novel.” He admired the way it captured “the full richness and madness and meaning” of the events surrounding President John F. Kennedy’s death in Dallas.
At 26 volumes, the report’s abundance impressed him, too. “When I came across the dental records of Jack Ruby’s mother I felt a surge of admiration,” DeLillo wrote. “Did they really put this in?”
The Mueller report is not that sort of kitchen-sink chronicle. At 448 hungrily awaited pages, it is long but hardly an epic.
It perhaps necessarily lacks both the novelistic sweep of the 9/11 Commission Report and the intimate — “prurient” would be a more exact word — scene-setting of the Starr report on President Bill Clinton. (“She and the President kissed. She unbuttoned her jacket; either she unhooked her bra or … ”)
The Mueller report is a dense slab of verbiage. It is not written in bureaucratese, but it is not far from it either. If you were to put a droplet of its syntax under a microscope, you’d find a swirling necktie pattern of small white starched shirts and three-ring binders and paper cups of stale black coffee. Reading between the lines, you might spy tiny handcuffs as well.
This is not a narrative that warms in the hands. There is no sweeping language. It appears to have been designed to make minimum political impact. Because its language about not exonerating Trump is written in the negative, the most important sections are hard to quote.
A typical line is: “A statement that the investigation did not establish particular facts does not mean there was no evidence of those facts.” A plausible title for the paperback editions that will soon be in bookstores might be, “We Didn’t Not Find Anything.”
Reports by special counsels and select congressional committees are a genre of their own by now. The Mueller report is a thorny, patriotic addition to this curious American shelf.
Its findings, especially those about the president’s ostensible attempts to obstruct justice, have been called a road map for further congressional action and other investigators. With its blacked-out redacted passages, the report more closely resembles a reverse crossword puzzle. We will collectively be solving for its inky elisions for some time, perhaps the rest of our lives.
This is a document that, like the Badlands National Park, one has to visit for oneself. If you rely on the velvet fog of Attorney General William Barr’s Cliffs Notes, you will get an “F” on the exam.
The report details how the Russians worked diligently to subvert the 2016 election, and how grateful the Trump campaign was for the support.CreditErin Schaff/The New York Times
So much of what’s in the Mueller report is already known, thanks to what never again should be referred to as “fake news,” that reading it is like consuming a short story collection that’s already been excerpted in every magazine you subscribe to. But its two volumes nonetheless have the power to shock and appall.
Volume One is a report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. It commences, like a super-sleuth literary or political biography, with tempered gloating about the author’s indefatigable fact-finding.
“During its investigation the Office issued more than 2,800 subpoenas,” the report declares, and “executed nearly 500 search-and-seizure warrants.” This paragraph contains many similar figures. It ends by noting that the special counsel’s office “interviewed approximately 500 witnesses, including almost 80 before a grand jury.”
The authors wish to be transparent and helpful. For older readers, the report pauses to explain, in footnotes, what an online troll is, as well as things like botnets, spearphishing emails and malware.
The Russians worked diligently to subvert the 2016 election, and the Trump campaign was grateful for the support. There was perhaps no collusion, to use a word that Mueller dislikes. (He prefers “conspiracy.”) But there was cheerleading. There was dancing in subversion’s end zone.
The theme of the Mueller report, like the theme of Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge,” is lies and the souls of those who tell them. Through the entirety of the report, Trump is observed to lie, at almost every moment, like Falstaff telling Hal how many thieves he fended off. Others tell untruths for the president, sometimes at his request, sometimes out of loyalty, and get caught in gummy webs of their own devising.
In Volume One, we’re reminded of the fake Facebook and Twitter accounts that churned out pro-Trump propaganda. The authors reprint a poster, created by the Russians, for Pennsylvania rallies under the title “Miners for Trump.”
In Volume One, too, the prevarications of figures like Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. and Michael Cohen, among many others, are intensely scrutinized.
Fetishizers of crime-novel forensics will enjoy details like this one, about Erik Prince, the founder of the security contractor Blackwater: “Cell-site location data for Prince’s mobile phone indicates that Prince remained at Trump Tower for approximately three hours.”
There is not space to divulge the context, but I hope the phrase “a long caviar story to tell” — written to Manafort by the Russian and Ukrainian political consultant Konstantin Kilimnik — enters the lingo, perhaps via a Gary Shteyngart novel.
Volume Two of the Mueller report, like the second volume of Bob Dylan’s greatest hits, is the more stereophonic and satisfying. It is more cohesive; the narrative about obstruction flows, and is blunt in its impact.
Saul Bellow said that for a writer, “the fact is a wire through which one sends a current.” There are so many heated wires in Volume Two, about the corruption that the president spawns wherever he turns, that the reader will burn his or her fingers.
This is not the place to rehearse all of the details. Please feast on the reporting elsewhere in this newspaper. Yet two scenes are indelible. We will be running up against them in films, plays, novels and histories for the remainder of our terms on earth.
The first is the account, like something out of reports of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon in the fevered last days of Nixon’s presidency, of President Trump learning from Jeff Sessions that a special prosecutor had been appointed. According to the report, the president “slumped back in his chair and said, ‘Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.’”
The second, most resonant, moment occurs when Trump asks his White House counsel, Donald McGahn, “Why do you take notes? Lawyers don’t take notes. I never had a lawyer who takes notes.”
The report continues: “McGahn responded that he keeps notes because he is a ‘real lawyer’ and explained that notes create a record and are not a bad thing. The President said, ‘I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn. He did not take notes.’”
Two thoughts: McGahn is one of the few Trump advisers who comes off even remotely well in this account. America will never get Roy Cohn out of its moral DNA.
Throughout the report, the special counsel’s team bends over backward to give the Trump administration the benefit of the doubt.
If the Mueller report were to analyze the aftermath of young George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, it would include lines like: “It is possible that Mr. Washington swung his ax 27 times in the direction of the tree because he was attempting to ward off a hornet. It is also possible that the tree begged to be chopped down.”
The Mueller report tells you what it is going to say, says it, and then tells you what it just said. It is hardly pleasurable to read, on textual as well as emotional grounds. It is ill-making about the amorality of an administration.
The new Ian McEwan novel, “Machines Like Me,” will be out soon in America. It contains a line that echoed for me across the time I spent with the Mueller report: “I’d never thought that vomiting could be a moral act.”
The Mueller report feels less like an ending than an uncertain beginning. It plants seeds into the ground.